Submitted by Barry Mills on September 19, 2011 - 3:00am
As we begin this new academic year, I see a set of complex and confusing issues that are potentially and likely transformational in the context of Bowdoin College. Beyond Bowdoin, these forces are likely to be fundamentally disruptive, certainly in the K-12 educational arena and even more likely in higher education, which seeks to educate large numbers of students to be employed in a growing, successful, and just society supported by vibrant U.S. and world economies -- something we all hope to achieve once again. These issues all involve the role of technology in education.
Shortly before I became president of Bowdoin in 2001, our trustees and many others were caught up in the tech boom of the late 1990s. I remember well a trustee retreat in the late 90s that was centered in large part on this very issue. Many trustees shared the then-conventional wisdom that technology would fundamentally change the educational landscape in profound ways. Back then, there were grand predictions about how technology would become a dominant force in the educational landscape. Then came the dot-com bust, as we began the 21st century, and those very same folks significantly discounted the projected impact of technology.
Yet, the impact has been undeniable: e-mail, text messaging, Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter, wireless, iPhones, iPads, Android, Skype, BlackBerry, Blackboard, mobile apps, the Cloud, and on and on. Today, you can use an app to find out what's for lunch at our campus, and one of our professors, Eric Chown, is even teaching a course on building these apps.
I own an iPhone, an iPad, an Apple computer, and an iPod. My son George calls me "Apple Redundant." I think it's fair to say that we actually find ourselves on the brink of that revolution or evolution envisioned in the late '90s, but it happened organically and through innovation, surrounded by less hype and without the market exuberance. At least until recently.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month, Marc Andreessen -- the venture capitalist who co-founded Netscape and has backed Facebook, Groupon, Skype, Twitter, Zynga and Foursquare -- wrote that we are on the verge of a new time, when "software is eating the world." Why? Because as he writes, "six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of modern Internet, all the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be delivered on a global basis."
As Andreessen tells us, over two billion people now have broadband Internet access, up from 80 million a decade ago. In the next 10 years he expects that 5 billion people worldwide will own a smartphone -- "instant access to the full power of the Internet."
Today, the world's largest bookseller is Amazon. The largest video service: Netflix. The dominant music companies: iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify. And it goes on and on. Just ask the class of 2015 about video games! We are in a moment of change, disruptive change that is altering the landscape, and Andreessen's view is that health care (thankfully) and education are next in line for fundamental software-based transformation.
I connected Andreessen's views with a book I read this summer recommended to me by another brilliant investor. The book -- The Information by James Gleick -- is a history of the way we have thought about and chronicled information over human history. Many years ago -- but not so long ago in human history -- information was transmitted only through the spoken word. The world was fundamentally changed by the invention of the printing press, which allowed us to reproduce facts and information and to make them accessible to many. Today, we live in a society of the web and mobile applications that is equally or perhaps even more transformational. I understand I am conflating years of transformation to make a point, but I think of it this way.
Remember the movie, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," when the bridge keeper asks Sir Robin to name the capital of Assyria? Well, back then, if you didn't know the answer, the only option was to ask the other guys standing at the bridge before being catapulted into the abyss. Later, one might look it up in an encyclopedia, in an almanac (remember almanacs?), or in a card catalog in the library. Today, Sir Robin would pull out his iPhone and have the answer in a heartbeat, avoiding an untimely demise.
And in a more modern context, I always ask students from far off states how they found their way to Bowdoin. In years past, it was frequently about camp in Maine, a Bowdoin graduate who was their teacher, NESCAC, the Fiske Guide, or the Princeton Review or when Tony Soprano visited Bowdoin. This year, for the first time, the answer -- from more than a few students I met in matriculation -- was Google. And remarkably and importantly, more than a quarter of our applicants are now students we have never seen on campus or who have no contact with us before they apply.
My point is that we are storing, sorting, and filtering information today in ways that are vastly different than we did even 50 or 25 or maybe even 10 years ago.
Now, I am very willing to concede that it is just not the same to do art history research without traveling to a dark archive in France and looking directly at a priceless piece of art. And I am also willing to concede that generations have found it invaluable to walk through the stacks in the library and to locate books and treatises that they didn't even know existed. I understand the power of these experiences and this scholarship, but one must also concede that the transmission and organization of facts and information has changed, and has changed forever.
In the future, we are less likely to be limited by one surprising find in a library, there because a librarian decided to purchase a particular book. Instead, we will be surprised because an algorithm has placed a particular source at the top of our search list on Google, or the next Google. Of course, the future will decide if the process of discovery is as equally rewarding.
And, let me point out that in a world where there is persistent attention on the cost of higher education, the cost of books for our most expensive first-year seminar this year is over $150, and all of those books may be bought online for less than half the cost. Saves money, saves the environment and lightens back strain from the backpack. At this point, online textbooks are a work in progress -- but there are educators and entrepreneurs working today to deliver in the near term a new generation of online textbooks that focus on information, "accessibility, searchability and collaboration." These textbooks will not merely provide information, but provide it in a variety of learning and teaching modes that will make learning more accessible for their readers. One of our faculty colleagues reminds me often that our mission here is not to teach, but to learn. Recognizing that different people, including students, learn in different ways is essential. And, these new advances will allow us to become more effective if we are open and willing.
Where I am headed with all this is that I am convinced that we cannot responsibly ignore the changing dynamics in the way that information is stored and delivered, because these changing dynamics will undoubtedly change our role as educators. The imperative to supply information is being supplanted -- or more likely refocused -- by the availability of the information if sorted and organized responsibly.
The last dot I want to connect is the work of Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who has done work throughout his career studying "disruptive change." Christensen studies industries that are convinced that they are serving their clients and customers well, innovating to serve their most important needs. These industries are, in fact, doing so. Until one transformative moment, their clients are willing to pay the high costs of the service or product they deliver. Then, one day, the business is replaced by a lower cost, more effective model, often driven by the power of technology. And the mature, well-conceived, high-quality, high-cost supplier is suddenly an anachronism.
Christensen's examples include PCs displacing mainframes, department stores yielding to Walmart, and Fidelity overtaking conventional investment banks, among others. Not surprisingly, Christensen has focused on technology as the disruptive change agent for education at the K-12 level. Also, given the economics of higher education and the skills required of our workforce, Christensen sees the advent of distance learning as a powerful change agent for higher education.
Christensen's focus in higher education is more directed at institutions that are educating vast numbers of students less than effectively at high cost. His thesis, borne out by current trends, is that the substance of the education these institutions provide will likely be delivered in the future much more through distance learning and possibly through for-profit education that is more cost effective and directed to skills and education that translates into job readiness.
For elite institutions such as Bowdoin, Christensen is more circumspect about disruptive change because the high-quality education provided by these elite colleges and universities -- education that is recognized as opening the doors to select and high paying jobs or academic careers -- will, over the near term, be sustainable despite the high cost because of the return on the investment and the quality of the education. But it will by its very structure be available to a privileged few who have the ability to pay the cost or are supported by institutional endowment.
So, what does all of this mean for Bowdoin and other elite liberal arts colleges? I'll be the first to admit, I don't know. But I am convinced it is worth thinking about. Let me be clear that I believe there will always be a place for the mode and substance of a liberal arts education and the residential life experience that Bowdoin represents. And in a Google and Wikipedia world with a high degree of access to facts and information, there will be a premium on a liberal arts education that helps students learn which facts are worth knowing, what they can rely on, and how to interpret these facts. I believe society will come to value our form of education even more because what we do, at our best, is more than imparting information. We enable our students to develop judgment and perspective using the available facts and information in a manner based on critical judgment and analysis.
College education at Bowdoin is less about merely accumulating facts that are a keystroke away, and more about evaluating the veracity of the information and developing the powers of interpretation and judgment. But given the reliance on talent that our model demands, it will be, by its very nature, the high-cost model of education. That's why we must be excellent, sophisticated, and the very best at imparting the wisdom and judgment our students will need to be important citizens of our country and the world.
Rather than being disruptive to Bowdoin, I am convinced that technology and modes of learning emancipated by technology will have the power, potentially, to incrementally, rather than disruptively, improve our educational model. Take the new student information system as an example. For years, Bowdoin students have registered for courses using paper cards submitted to our registrar. In fact, just this week, 485 first-year students registered in the last two days on paper cards for their courses this semester, and all are ready to go. And members of our faculty have advised students effectively for years, based on course catalogs and paper versions of course availability supplemented by our clunky current system. Our students have done well throughout this time, well advised and finding themselves in the courses they desire.
Now we will spend a few million dollars on a computer software that will allow people to register online and the system will collate and organize more effectively information about our students and our curriculum. The important question is, how will this make us a better college? How will we advise our students better with this technology? I suspect the answer will lie in how we change the way we approach the challenge. Or stated more directly, the technology will not improve our quality unless we utilize the technology to improve our educational and business practices. One cannot justify the expenditure unless we improve the quality of what we do for our students, except, of course, if one is satisfied that this system is better merely because it might take less time and maybe makes us more productive -- neither a goal that inherently suggests good advising. The interesting test case will be to see if technology improves our performance as students and as faculty advisers, a task that I have asked the folks implementing the system to assess over the coming years.
One could imagine innumerable ways that technology and the power to connect with colleagues nationally and internationally could allow us to expand our course offerings, or to become more global. Already, the power to connect is used in meaningful ways by our faculty to collaborate with colleagues in research and scholarship. I suggest that expanding our conception of teaching to incorporate this technology in similar ways will incrementally enhance our educational enterprise. For faculty who seek global connections for our students, there are mechanisms available to bring the global community into our classrooms here in Brunswick, Maine. Is this a perfect solution or an absolute replacement for foreign study? No. But it is quite likely that our students, faculty, and community would benefit from real time, face-to-face interaction with students and faculty in foreign lands.
We are continually and thoughtfully asked by our faculty and students to create new programs at Bowdoin. There is often genuine enthusiasm and good reason to consider the new program, but creating something new at Bowdoin from a standing start, where we might have one or two faculty committed to the concept, is difficult and expensive. Would it be better to build it ourselves in our residential community? Most definitely, yes. But it is also certain that resources over the next period will be limited and the power to connect with colleagues at other places that could create the critical mass for these new programs is worth considering. It is also apparent, at least to me, that there are opportunities to improve the substance and scope of our model of education by providing sophisticated programs and advanced study at the outer edges of certain disciplines where a few students would be interested in study.
How we utilize this technology while preserving the core of our college, the very brand of our college -- the connection between our faculty as teachers and scholars and our students as learners -- will be critical. But we should not turn away from opportunities to expand the sophistication and scope of our program in ways that adds to the depth and strength of our college. Not only because the opportunities might be cost-effective, but because the overall quality of a Bowdoin education will be directly linked with the excellence and sophistication of that program. For, while we are certain that the relationship between our faculty and students is at the core of what we do, that core will not be sustainable if the relationship is not grounded in the most sophisticated educational resource available. If we are not first-rate and intellectually sophisticated, over time we will not attract first-rate, sophisticated faculty or students. Connection and collaboration are crucial, but a sophisticated Bowdoin is fundamental.
Of course, I am sufficiently humble to understand that the musings of a college president do not effect change. Nothing happens at a college or university unless the faculty or some group of faculty decides on their own that there is something to an idea, and takes the initiative. But I think the future is clear, and we will be looking in our rearview mirror if we are not prepared to grapple with these new opportunities.
Finally, and more ambitiously, elite institutions would be well-served to consider more directly the means to impart more broadly and more cost-effectively the sum and substance of what we teach and how we learn to large segments of our society. Technology has the power to be the conductor of this education and to empower masses of people, rather than just a privileged few at these elite institutions. By this, I mean more comprehensive efforts than merely open-source education and free access to lectures.
Elite institutions with the brightest minds and the most ambitious programs would be well served to consider how we flatten the curve to make this quality education available readily to a much broader section of our society. This is a big project, but it is an imperative that elite higher education should take on. For while there is no doubt that elite institutions are doing great work making our form of education available to many who in the past could never gain access, the size of our institutions collectively and the access we create is a small fraction of the demographic that could benefit from the educational opportunity. A vexing task, but one made more possible every day through the innovation of software and technology. It is, in my view, a challenge that elite educational institutions should take on, especially given the demographics of the country and the cost and price implications of our institutions.
As you shift in your seats, let me reemphasize for you that I am confident in the style and substance of what we do at Bowdoin. But I am equally confident that we live in a rapidly changing educational landscape where it is essential that we exist at the highest level of sophistication in order to attract and retain the best faculty and students and support the cost structure of our form of education. To my mind, the transformation of education that we face demands that we have the confidence to explore these new opportunities.
Barry Mills is president of Bowdoin College. This essay is adapted from his convocation talk to new students this fall.
A liberal arts college like mine necessarily has a different sense of its role in relation to its community than does a community college or a research university. I spent the past academic year as an ACE Fellow, learning about public higher education, and one of my biggest adjustments was coming to understanding public higher education’s role in economic development and workforce preparation. The institution to which I was attached, the five-campus University of Massachusetts system, understands its role in its state and region in terms inherited from the Morrill Act of 1862, which established the land-grant colleges and their obligation to train state residents in new techniques of agriculture. The current manifestation of the Morrill Act would seem to be in the university’s commitment to commercial ventures, patents, and intellectual property, helping to start and support new businesses that grow out of research done on campus. In this region, much of the university’s innovation comes in biotechnology.
Community colleges and, to an extent, regional state colleges and universities focus more on workforce preparation. Community colleges are nimble — they can develop programs to meet particular employment needs of their regions quickly and efficiently. New communications tech company opens, and the area doesn’t have trained workers? The local community college starts a program in fiber optics installation (our neighbor Cape Cod Community College recently did this).
Private liberal arts colleges have no Morrill Act and no stated obligation to their regions to prepare workers. We have had the luxury of determining for ourselves the extent to which we connect to our local community and its needs, and colleges vary in their approaches. Some are deeply engaged with local needs, such as Dickinson College, which not only works with area organizations through service learning but also encourages faculty to teach research skills by working with community organizations on projects that would benefit from student research. Other liberal arts colleges are more isolated from the economic and social issues of their surrounding communities, with teaching and learning located strictly on campus.
My year in a state university system made me wonder whether there is an equivalent of tech transfer and business incubation for liberal arts colleges. Not, mind you, that we could do much tech transfer or business incubation – I don’t think we could or should. My question is, what would be the equivalent of those things – in effect on the community, in effect on the campus, and in tying one to the other?
Service learning is not the sole answer, as important as it is. It’s a different category: individual students doing internships at individual agencies. Nor is volunteering – the orientation day of service or the class project at the nursing home. What I’m looking for is the liberal arts college equivalent of the research university concept of innovation: a campus structure that would encourage our students and faculty to challenge themselves to develop new ideas that have implications for the world, and the local communities around them.
To a certain extent, of course, the sciences already do this at liberal arts colleges. Active labs are constantly moving research forward, even if it isn’t funded by industry with an eye toward a future bottom line. The arts, too, are always looking off campus, to a larger audience for music, studio art, dance, drama, and creative writing. But to move beyond seeking audiences and into active involvement in the community, college artists, as well as the rest of us, need active support and encouragement from the institution. What kinds of structures at a liberal arts college would support a model of innovation that would link the campus and its community in ways that would benefit both?
The social contract between the nation and higher education, ideally, means that both parties recognize our mutual obligations. Different sectors of higher education recognize those obligations differently. The central role of workforce preparation for community colleges is clear, and those colleges are repaid with state appropriations and federal funding for student aid (inadequately, I know). That would seem to be the contract in action.
For the research university, state investment seems to pay off handsomely in economic development dollars generated in the state. The state research universities I’ve seen seem to take very seriously their obligations to their states – it’s not as clear to me that the other side of the social contract is being upheld, however, as funding for postsecondary education is seen as discretionary and takes huge cuts all over the country.
So where is the mutual obligation between the private liberal arts college and its community? We at such colleges have largely understood our obligation to be one of preparing educated critical thinkers, ready for graduate study or a career. That obligation works at the individual level, however, student by student. What if we envisioned ourselves as having a campus obligation, a contract with our community in return for the federal student aid our students already receive and for a new level of support from business and civic communities?
Many private colleges that draw their students from all over the country, as well as from other countries, do not see themselves as part of their regions in the way public universities do. “Region” is a less significant concept than it used to be, in an era when strong communities are formed through social networks and work can be done from remote locations. Even so, colleges are in regions, as any college town finance committee will tell you. Colleges’ nonprofit status exempts them from paying property tax, with the understanding that, as with nonprofit hospitals and government buildings, the work that goes on in those tax-exempt properties is work that benefits the community.
Liberal arts colleges should better recognize the obligation of our sector of higher education to the economy and to civic life in general. We may not produce particular kinds of workers for a particular geographical region or produce technology that can be brought to market. And even if we shift our conceptual framework to what Wesleyan President Michael Roth advocates, to seeing a college education as a “platform,” a “capacity builder,” rather than a “product,” we still end up focusing on the individual student.
Instead, let’s reconceive the liberal arts college as an essential and functioning part of a large, working democracy. Our colleges can connect better with other institutions, organizations, companies, and community groups, working to help to solve off-campus problems as well as helping students to understand themselves as members of multiple communities. Organizations such as Campus Compact, which focuses on community service, and Imagining America, which focuses especially on campus work in public arts and humanities, promote these kinds of outreach, but each campus needs to take responsibility for its own place in the social contract.
To make such a shift, we would need first need to find out, from various campus constituencies, what is already going on on campus: Where are we sending our students and why (for internships, for jobs, for study abroad)? Where is our research used? With what community organizations are faculty and staff involved? Once we can identify our constituencies, we could formulate a structured approach to them, one that would enable our campuses to establish firm relationships off campus that would then become part of the campus identity.
Once we see what we’re already doing, we can identify whether it’s what we want to be doing: With what local and national organizations do we feel especially aligned? How much are we working with them? Where would we like our students to intern or to work, and what can we do to get them there? What groups, individuals, intellectual and working communities could be benefiting from the research we are doing on our campuses?
Becoming aware of and then cultivating ties with various off-campus entities can strengthen a liberal arts college as well as strengthening the job prospects for our students. We are not in the business of workforce preparation as community colleges are, nor are we likely to make a big splash with new patents or business incubation as the research universities do. But we need to be in the business of defining our relevance beyond our own walls as we prepare students for life beyond our campuses. Through financial aid and tax exemption, our national, state, and local communities help to make it possible for private colleges to exist. The more we take seriously our obligations beyond our walls, the more clear it will be to skeptics how much higher education, including private higher education, brings to the social contract between the nation and its educational institutions. And the more our students see our campuses as closely engaged with civic life, the better citizens we will produce.
Paula M. Krebs
Paula M. Krebs is special assistant to the president for external relations and professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.
For a college president, Michael Schneider of McPherson College spends an awful lot of time talking about horsing around on playground equipment.
It's not because he's immature, though at the age of 37 he is one of the youngest college presidents in the country. It's because "jumping off swings" is Schneider's metaphor for entrepreneurship -- students shouldn't be afraid to take risks, just like they did as children -- an idea he hopes will seep into every corner of McPherson.
Nowadays, many liberal arts colleges promote the economic value of a liberal education. They boast that the impressive careers of liberal arts graduates offer an excellent return on students' tuition investment. Thus, while the cost of a quality liberal education may be high, the economic benefits down the line are greater still.
But while the economic success of liberal arts graduates is certainly worth lauding, we may be missing something more fundamental here. When, as a lawyer-turned-professor, I consider my own liberal education, I can see how it did much more than enhance my career prospects. In fundamental ways, it helped me connect my career aspirations to a meaningful, satisfying life. Looking back over 25 years now, I see how at its best my liberal education offered me increased possibilities not only of money, but significantly, of happiness.
An enduring puzzle of our times is why our well-documented rise in incomes has not led to an increase in our subjective well-being. While well educated Americans are clearly getting wealthier, we are not reporting higher levels of happiness.
Economist Robert Frank offers an intriguing explanation to this puzzle, one that bears on how we think about the value of a liberal arts education. The problem, he says, is not what we make, but how we spend it. "[G]ains in happiness that might have been expected to result from growth in absolute income have not materialized because of the ways in which people in affluent societies have generally spent their incomes."
The difficulty, according to Frank, is that we spend our money in conspicuous ways - such as on bigger houses - that are especially subject to the psychological process of adaptation. Under this process, as people generally buy bigger houses, the social norm for house size increases. Adapting to this rising standard, we need to spend more to get a house we can regard as acceptable. But while we come to spend more for our homes, we do not derive greater pleasure from them. Rather, the size of house that is needed to satisfy us has simply increased. If we wish our growing wealth to help make us happier, says Frank, we need to shift our resources to what he calls "inconspicuous goods." These goods aren’t really goods, but are conditions, like avoiding a long commute or leaving a stressful job. And when our wealth helps us do these things, it does make us happier.
The picture is different for long commutes and stressful jobs because such experiences are less subject to the psychological process of adaptation that occurs with the increasing number of larger houses. "As it turns out," writes Frank, "our capacity to adapt varies considerably across domains." While we easily get used to larger homes, we never completely adjust to longer commutes.
Thus, the key to happier lives is spending more of our resources on inconspicuous goods, those marked by our lesser capacity to adapt. Because increased spending on such goods is more likely to foster our subjective well-being, we are here better able to get our money's worth.
Frank's argument is an intriguing one for me, as at midlife I deepen my understanding of the value of my own liberal education. A central benefit of a liberal arts education is an enhanced capacity for critical thinking, the ability to subject to independent scrutiny the received norms of our environment. It is because of this enhanced capacity to scrutinize social convention that liberal education works to liberate individuals, enabling them to choose freely their own views, rather than simply relying on tradition or authority.
Thus in principle, a liberally educated individual should be less subject to the process of adaptation Frank describes. This is because this adaptation process is rooted in the very social norms the liberal arts graduate has developed the capacity to scrutinize critically.
Because a liberally educated person develops a critical distance from the norms of his environment, he has, under Frank's analysis, a greater potential for happiness. In conspicuous purchases such as houses, he is less likely to need to exceed the norm to insure happiness and more likely to avoid unhappiness if below the norm. Less bound to more conspicuous spending, he also has the freedom to devote more of his resources to the inconspicuous goods that offer a greater contribution to his well-being.
I saw this transformation in myself, while undergoing my own liberal education. I had always been a night owl and fell easily into the rhythms of student life as an English major at Wesleyan University. As my college years progressed, I remember distinctly watching less TV. In classrooms and conversations, I was discovering a world more engaging and enduring than the world of conspicuous consumption then displayed on network television. I still kept my late-night hours, but the “Tonight Show” gave way to the stories of Melville and Kafka, two writers more concerned with understanding human psychology and relationships than acquiring material goods. The result was that, during my senior year, I don't recall ever discussing the size of house I hoped to live in. But I remember distinctly a line I repeated often when asked of my ambitions. I'd say: "Give me a library and the woman I love - and I'll be happy."
As a middle-aged, family man, my life is more complex now, but its underlying values abide. I met - and married - the woman I love. She delights and surprises me almost daily. And in my current academic job, I enjoy access to a first-rate library that satisfies even my overly curious mind. To be sure, I've even come to live in a very nice home, one that's far larger than the national norm. But when my friend tells me he could never move back to a smaller house, I immediately sense a difference between us. I've learned that my happiness depends less on where I live and more on what I treasure.
Vocational training, by definition, is designed to enhance our productive capacities. It equips us with skills for occupations ranging from X-ray technician to software engineer. Liberal education contributes to our productive lives as well, as I know firsthand from my own legal career.
But liberal education can do more. Significantly, it affects not only our skills as producers, but also our discernment as consumers. When it works, it changes for the better the satisfactions we seek. Over the course of a lifetime, a discriminating sensibility in this regard can contribute more to our happiness than the raises our jobs provide.
Of course, liberal education performs this broader role only when it confers more than intellectual insights. A liberal education must reinforce such insights in a way that fosters in students a new set of habits and dispositions. Such an education's intellectual virtues must, in short, become moral ones.
I have no doubt that this has always been a difficult task. Indeed, as a professor teaching today, I see it's becoming harder as an already overly commercialized culture becomes even more so. But I know from my current vantage point how a liberal education succeeded with me in ways my earlier self couldn't have foreseen. More importantly, I see in my classes how students surprise themselves daily with the persons they are becoming.
Thus, in promoting the value of a liberal education to the wider public, we should attend to the way it can change the consumers we become. Altering the satisfactions a person seeks changes his life in ways more profound than the paycheck he receives. For the wider public, this is the story of liberal education that has yet to be told. I suspect we can tell it best by telling our own individual stories, how our liberal educations transformed our lives, and how happiness in an unexpected way became possible.
Jeffrey Nesteruk is a professor at Franklin & Marshall College.
Our younger child just finished the college admissions sweepstakes. He got into one of his top choice schools, but he says he feels more unburdened than proud. Now he can get on with his life, enjoying the things he loves to do. He no longer has to worry about marketing his “admissions package,” as if he were the latest toothpaste or laundry detergent.
Our family last went through the admissions experience eight years ago when our older child applied to college. Although he ended up at one of the “hot” Ivy League universities, we sadly concluded that the selective college admissions process had no redeeming social value. You just lived through it, hoped your child survived unscathed, and prepared to hand over your bank account.
Unfortunately, it has gotten worse since then. More than ever, higher education seems like a commodity, as selective colleges market themselves shamelessly, increase applicant demand, and manage enrollments as if they were commercial enterprises. And, in response, an industry of expensive services and consultants to teach applicants how to game the admissions system is booming. Uncalculated is the toll on students, integrity and fundamental fairness.
This time around, college planning started just before ninth grade, when the college counselor at our son’s school met with parents and students to advise on the importance of course selection over the next four years. The message was to take diverse and challenging courses if you hope to get into a selective college -- loosely defined as the top 50 colleges and universities in the U.S. News & World Report annual survey. No big deal: Anyone who is interested in a rigorous liberal arts education for their child would probably take this advice anyway.
Then came 10th grade’s pre-pre-college admissions testing regimen: the PSAT, given by the College Board, and the PLAN, from ACT Inc. This was to get students ready to take the same tests again in 11th grade, to get them ready to take the tests that count big time in college admissions, the SAT and ACT. Although originally devised as alternatives, counselors now tell students to take both the SAT and the ACT and submit the score of the one they do best on. These tests are in addition to at least three SAT II “achievement” tests and, of course, a battery of Advanced Placement exams for those rigorous courses they are counseled to take. Pile on top of these the now de rigueur SAT and ACT review courses -- at, not incidentally, anywhere from $700 to $3,000 a pop.
Our son, a motivated student with top grades and a challenging academic program, is a very good, but not spectacular, standardized test-taker. Friends with children at other schools told us that kids had to have 1500 SAT’s to be in the admissions hunt at top-echelon colleges. Looking at the median test scores published by colleges and information services all over the Internet, this notion did not seem completely off-base. But even if it meant going to a lesser member of the “nifty 50” group of colleges, our son eschewed review courses on the grounds that he already had a heavy schedule and would rather read some good books than spend hours taking boring SAT or ACT prep classes. Obviously, we had done something right in his education, but we were definitely out of the mainstream.
He opted not to take the SAT at all, and ended up scoring in the 99th percentile on the ACT after doing some test prep at home on his own. This he was proud of, because, as he said, he isn’t a wiz at standardized tests, and he didn’t take an expensive prep course. I suppose it was a kind of reverse snobbery (“anyone can do well if they take a prep course, but I did it on my own”) and a real sign of the times in the selective college admissions world.
Fate was cruel to him in other ways. The night before the first AP exam in his junior year, he developed golf-ball-sized lymph nodes all over his neck and groin that looked suspiciously like lymphoma. It took four days to determine that he had mono, not cancer. This scare did put the whole college admissions lunacy in perspective for us.
On the other hand, our son endured AP and SAT II exams while suffering from mono. Now he had a new dilemma. Does he tell colleges he took the exams while sick? Does he take tests over in the fall? No matter how well he did, would he have done better if he had not had mono? In the end, he decided to accept fate. He did reasonably well on the tests, there were limits to how much of his life he was prepared to devote to getting into the “perfect” college, and he did not like making excuses, even good ones.
Our son’s college application experience was tame compared to children of a lot of upwardly mobile, well-educated, Baby Boom parents. For starters, the popularity of private “college consultants,” notwithstanding their ludicrous fees, took us by surprise. One family we know had a consultant on retainer from the time the child was in seventh grade. This was in addition to the cost of SAT prep courses and the professional editor for the college essay. The total bill for these services was more than $30,000.
An acquaintance we bumped into at a wedding last summer informed us she had just opened a private college consulting business, having recently retired from her position as a highly successful college counselor at an elite prep school. She offers a four-year package for about $15,000, or the college-application-only option for the all-important senior year for about $5,000. Her phone was ringing off the hook. Could this possibly be worth the extraordinary expense?
More important, what message does it send to children about their worth and competence when we act as if the only way they can make it into a selective college is to hire high-priced help to package and market them? Is the admissions prize worth this psychological price? As bad, are we raising a generation of young cynics?
Looking for Help
A quick Internet search revealed no shortage of expensive, fear-mongering consultants to guide students and their families through what they imply is the mine field of selective college admissions. After reading these sites, we wondered if a mere mortal could possibly fill out an application for an elite college, never mind actually get in. I went to Amazon.com and did a search for books on college admissions. The first book that turned up was A is for Admission; the Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges (Warner Books, 1999), the controversial, tell-all exposé of selective college admissions by Michelle A. Hernandez. Hernandez is a former Ivy League admissions officer who now has -- you guessed it -- a college consulting business. I ordered the book and read it cover to cover.
She confirmed what our older son had learned from an admissions office friend at his Ivy League university: You are lucky if an admissions reader devotes 15 minutes to the application your child labored over for months. It might even be more like 10 minutes. Hernandez also explained how, by calculating a so-called “academic index,” the selective college admissions office will reduce your child’s entire high school career to one number, weighted heavily in favor of standardized tests. The book had the ring of truth, not the least because it confirmed my by-now-cynical view of the selective college admissions process.
Hernandez also instructed how to play the admissions game, with specific coaching like: play down economic advantages; play up work experience, especially hard manual labor; show long-term passion about a few things; choose teachers for recommendations who you know can write with style; and most importantly (was this tongue-in-cheek?) be yourself. Her follow-on volume, Acing the College Application: How to Maximize Your Chances for Admission to the College of Your Choice, was prescriptive about how to fill out an application, including how to do the “brag sheet,” the list of activities and interests that is required in the Common Application now used by most colleges.
Of course, her example of a brag sheet, taken from one of her clients, made the applicant sound like a combination of Albert Schweitzer and Steven Spielberg. If this was the competition, it was very discouraging. Her advice on college interviews was sensible and contained a list of common interview questions. (Spot on, according to our son, after having gone through six interviews.) You can retain Ms. Hernandez for what is undoubtedly thousands of dollars, or you can buy the books for a total of about $25. We chose the cheap alternative.
One of the great eye-openers in the college admissions experience was the amount of disingenuousness involved in writing the college essay. Our son’s school spends a few weeks in English class early in the senior year working on crafting personal essays in order to prepare for college applications, so we naively assumed that students wrote their own college essays.
Not necessarily. As we spoke to parents in other places who had lived through the senior year with their children, we personally came to know of a father who wrote his daughter’s college essay, a father who had his son’s college essay written by an employee of the father’s business, and parents who hired professional editors or writers to “help” with the college essay. The worst part is that in every case, these children got into their first choice schools.
We live in a small town in upstate New York and thought we were immune to what we viewed as these metro-area ethical challenges. Wrong again. The summer before our son’s senior year, we received a glossy brochure from a professional writer in our town. He has gone into the business of helping students to “find their voices” in the “all important” college essay, a service for which he charges the mere pittance of $1,500. Isn’t your child’s future worth it? There seems to be so much deception in college essay writing, I have come to the conclusion that essays should be eliminated from applications in favor of a personal essay question administered in a controlled environment by the College Board or ACT and forwarded by them to colleges. Ironically, I never imagined I would find myself advocating for yet another college admissions test.
The same family that spent more than $30,000 on college consultants claimed that the college counseling staff at their well-regarded country day school advised that if the family was of a charitable bent, the application year would be a good time to make a significant donation to their child’s first-choice college. The family said they pledged half a million. An old friend who has been on the faculty of an elite liberal arts college in New England for a quarter century confirmed that over the past five years it has become well known that a contribution of $500,000 to $1 million to a selective college can secure a spot in the class for a student who is academically qualified.
Since 90 percent of applicants to such colleges are academically qualified and most of them are not admitted, the wealthy who are prepared to be generous at the right time appear to be able to buy admission for their children. Off the record, some selective college administrators we know demur that you have to pledge to rebuild the library in order to influence an admissions decision. Whatever the price, the dirty little secret seems to be that admission is for sale in what sounds like a pretty straight-forward, if expensive, transaction.
Toward the end of our son’s wait to hear from colleges, he had a nightmare that notification finally came but merely said, “No conclusion.” Did it mean he was consigned to college admissions purgatory forever? This was a fate worse than death. Happily, he awoke and was eventually admitted. Just as happily, we will never have to live through this experience again.
But we cannot help wondering if the selective college admissions process is losing integrity with every passing year. Reading thousands of applications at ten or fifteen minutes apiece, can admissions officers really see through anything but the most obvious and overblown applicant marketing? How can we believe their universal representation that each application is carefully reviewed? And what happens to families whose children go to schools with under-staffed and overburdened guidance offices and who cannot afford private college consultants, clever essay editors, test prep courses and mammoth charitable contributions?
These questions raise issues of fairness that go far beyond the current debates about affirmative action. Let’s hope the colleges are trying to answer them.
Deirdre Henderson is a mother and lawyer who lives in upstate New York.
Today, U.S. News & World Report will once again come out with its annual college rankings. Having worked as a college administrator my entire professional life, I often get questions about the usefulness of such rankings in the search process.
While rankings such as those published by U.S. News and World Report offer some useful data, I have developed a different set of five simple criteria or considerations for evaluating the value and for choosing one of the best educational experiences offered by our country’s 600 liberal arts colleges. Were I to provide counsel to parents of students interested in attending one of these colleges -- or to educators wondering how their institutions are doing -- here are five lines of questioning I’d suggest they pursue:
1. Has the institution’s faculty been granted a Phi Beta Kappa chapter? Founded in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa is the nation’s oldest and strongest academic honor society. Only those colleges or universities that meet the most rigorous academic standards are granted chapters. Criteria for membership include the number of volumes in the library, the number of faculty members who hold terminal (doctorate) degrees, and the number of faculty members who are members of Phi Beta Kappa. Membership in Phi Beta Kappa is an icon for maintaining a faculty of high caliber. Of the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the country, only 270 -- 7 percent -- have been granted Phi Beta Kappa chapters. Other measures of academic quality include accreditations by national organizations, honors and awards received by faculty, and participation of students in undergraduate research and related regional and national competitions.
2. Has the college or university earned a favorable rating (A or better) by Moody’s Investors Service or another rating service such as Standard and Poor’s? Moody’s rates bonds issued to finance capital projects. Each series of bonds carries a different rating, but taken in aggregate, the bond ratings provide a meaningful and important gauge of institutional health. No institution can get an A or better rating if it does not have a history of balanced budgets. In Texas, for example, only five of our private colleges have an A or better rating from Moody’s as of June 2005. Bond ratings show financial strength in the way Phi Beta Kappa membership shows an institution’s academic strength. A good bond rating is an indication that an institution has the funding to sustain important academic programs. Other measures of financial health include the annual National Association of College and University Business Officers Endowment Survey and the college’s annual report, which should include a financial statement that shows expenditures for instruction, library and technology, scholarship, maintenance and construction as well as income from tuition, endowment, and gifts and grants.
3. Do graduates of the college earn predominantly Bachelor of Arts degrees? Bachelor of Arts degrees, which often require mastery of a foreign language, are the “union cards” for people who truly pursue undergraduate study in the liberal arts. Generally, it can be said that the higher the ratio of B.A. degrees to pre-professional degrees such as the B.B.A., the greater the college or university’s commitment to teaching. At the strongest liberal arts colleges and universities, at least 75 percent of the degrees awarded each year are B.A.'s as opposed to pre-professional degrees.
4. What percentage of students resides on campus? Living on campus is an important component of a student’s education, as it helps develop a sense of community and civic duty and provides a more complete living and learning environment. Campus residency leads students to participate in campus organizations where they learn valuable leadership and teamwork skills. Ideally, 80 percent or more of a campus’s full-time undergraduates should reside on campus to ensure a vibrant collegiate experience.
5. How diverse is the campus community? Diversity comes in many forms: racial/ethnic, gender, socio/economic, age, geographic, to name a few. A hallmark of a broad-based undergraduate education is consideration of a variety of perspectives based on the different experiences of diverse students and faculty. This type of rich and vibrant dialogue proves invaluable in students’ future professional, civic and personal lives. As a threshold, campus communities of students, faculty and staff should include 20 percent or more who represent populations other than its dominant majority.
I’m not saying that we should throw out rankings such as those compiled by U.S. News. An unfortunate characteristic of our society is that we always want to know who is No. 1 – whether it be in the classroom or on the football field. But the problem with rankings is that they encourage institutions that are uniquely different to change their programs in an attempt to improve their rankings. This doesn’t make sense for institutions that have specific missions that do not complement the rankings game.
For students who want to choose a great liberal arts college, I believe the above five questions are the ones that should be asked. You won’t find a college in America that meets these criteria and isn’t a great liberal arts college.
Jake B. Schrum
Jake B. Schrum is president of Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Tex.
Two years ago, The Virginia Quarterly Review published an essay called "Quarterlies and the Future of Reading." The author, George Core, has been the editor of The Sewanee Review since 1973 -- at which time, it was already a venerable institution, one of the oldest publications of its kind in the United States.
By "publications of its kind," I mean the general-interest cultural quarterlies, usually published by universities or liberal-arts colleges. Unlike scholarly journals, they aren't focused on a particular field. Usually they offer a mixture of contemporary poetry and fiction with essays that are learned but nonspecialist.
It pays to be explicit about that, because so few people keep track of the university quarterlies now. Many of them are still around, with a modest if reliable subscriber base in the libraries. But it often seems as if they continue just by inertia.
It is always a sentimental gesture to speak of a golden age. But what the hell: The years between, say, 1925 and 1965 were a glorious time for such journals. Then, as now, their circulations were usually modest. But the worlds of publishing and of the university were smaller, and the quarterlies had a disproportionately large role to play. Truman Capote once mentioned in an interview how he knew he had "arrived" as a young writer in the 1940s: On the same day, he received two or three letters from the editors of quarterlies accepting his short stories for publication in their pages.
In his essay, two years ago, Core insisted that "the literary quarterly ... has been the linchpin of civilization since the 18th century." And if things did not look encouraging at the dawn of the 21st century ... well, so much the worse for what that says about civilization. "The average librarian these days, like many members of various departments in the humanities," wrote Core, "has become hostile to books and hostile to reading." Needless to say, technology is to blame.
It is hard to know what to make of the fact that Core's essay is now available online. I mean, sure, you can read it that way, but would he really want that?
But cantankerousness in defense of the quarterly is no vice. Nor, for that matter, is it a virtue to overstate how much the university-based general-interest periodical has declined. The situation may not be good, but it is not quite catastrophic.
Core's Sewanee Review is hopelessly out of touch with many trends in contemporary literary studies -- which is one reason it is still worth reading. But The Minnesota Review is very much in touch with developments in cultural theory, while also publishing a good deal of poetry, fiction, and personal essays. I've been reading it with interest for 25 years now (during which time it has never actually been published or edited in Minnesota). The Common Review, published by the Great Books Foundation, occupies a niche somewhere between the old-fashioned university quarterly and magazines such as Harper's and The Atlantic Monthly.
The list could go on -- and if it did, would have to include such non-academic, sui generis publications as N+1, which I've been urging upon the attention of startled bystanders ever since seeing the prototype pamphlet that appeared in advance of its debut, not quite two years ago. A third issue is now at newsstands. (See also the magazine's Web site. )
And if you want to see some interesting and successful experiments in updating the whole format, keep an eye out for Boston Review and The Virginia Quarterly Review.
The September/October issue of Boston Review marks its 30th anniversary. Coming out six times a year, and as a tabloid, BR might at first seem to bear little resemblance to the university quarterlies of any era. But those differences are superficial. The mixture of political, philosophical, and literarydiscussion calls to mind the early Partisan Review, the most agenda-setting of the quarterlies published at mid-century.
Boston Review's anniversary issue contains a 12-page anthology of poems and essay organized by year -- including work by (to give a partial list) John Kenneth Galbraith, Adrienne Rich, Rita Dove, Ralph Nader, George Scialabba, and Martha Nussbaum. (Somebody on that list is bound to interest or agitate you.) One of the selections for 1993 comes from an essay by Christopher Hitchens called "Never Trust Imperialists." It would have been interesting to hear the editorial discussion that resulted in that one being included.
As for The Virginia Quarterly Review, it has come under a new editor, Ted Genoways, who seems to have ignored entirely the worries expressed in George Core's ruminations on the state of the quarterly. In its new incarnation, [ital]VQR[ital] is colorful, topical, even a bit flashy -- with the latest issue offering a gallery of photographs from Vietnam as well as a pull-out comic book by Art Spiegelman, along with poetry, fiction, a play, and several essays.
Some of the once-vital quarterlies ended up becoming so polite and reserved that their audiences did not so much read them as search each issue for signs of a pulse. You certainly don't have that problem with Boston Review or VQR. Recent discussion of standards for "public scholarship" has emphasized the possibility of creating venues "at the interface of campus and community."
Arguably, that is what the quarterlies and review always were -- and their revitalization now can only be a good sign.
My nephew always wanted to design things, and as a teenager he seemed to be on the fast track to a good engineering degree. Took a community college calculus course while in high school. Worked for a computer aided design (CAD) company part-time. Got admitted to a top-notch engineering program.
In the middle of his first year, however, he dropped out. Now he’s enrolled in a technical institute, learning CAD skills and only CAD skills. He’s very happy, apart from the fact that he’s had to move back home.
Where did I, his college-professor aunt, go wrong? Or did I?
What upsets me is that he doesn’t see any inherent value in a liberal education, in a college degree rather than a tech-school certificate. But I also wonder whether mine isn’t a narrow attitude -- after all, the kid wants to do CAD, so why should he have to get a degree? What doors would a bachelor’s degree open for him? He knows what kind of work he likes to do, and he can start earning money at it a lot faster with a certificate in “Drafting/CAD.”
I checked out the Web site for the school he’s chosen. The school’s URL is a .com, not a .edu. It boasts that "Our short term curriculums focus only on courses directly related to your field of study, without any fluff. These classes are taught by instructors that have professional experience in the industry."
Besides bringing out my usually-held-in-check pedantry (“the plural of curriculum is not curriculums, dammit” and “instructors WHO, not instructors that!”), the Web site rankles because it’s pitching itself directly against the idea of a liberal arts education or “fluff.”
I worry that I’m being a snob. Why shouldn’t he study a job skill instead of spending his time reading books he doesn’t care about? Why not go to class at a place that teaches auto body repair instead of philosophy? I’m sure they’ll get him a job when he graduates, which is more than I do for my students.
My nephew is a working-class kid. Neither of his parents went to college, and most of his friends won’t. Still, I had assumed that because he got good grades in high school and wanted to be an engineer he’d want to get a degree. The problem is, I think, no one ever told him what a degree was. No one ever talked to him about the difference between higher education and job training. No one ever said why he should want to read books he wouldn’t choose on his own or take a class in chemistry or go to a lecture by a political scientist. And now he probably will never do any of those things.
As a professor I have to mourn that choice. Yet as an aunt who wants to see her nephew happy, I have to agree with my brother that the tech school is probably an OK place for my nephew right now. I don’t mean to imply that he’s doomed. I just worry that he’s severely limited his future choices.
I wonder how it is that higher education is still, in the 21st century, failing to get its message across. Failing to explain the difference between a college degree and a tech-school certificate to the high school student whose parents never went to college. Failing to convince the engineering-school freshman that he should bother to stick around and learn the things that don’t seem immediately applicable to his future career. We have not convinced legislatures that the state has a stake in higher education, that a citizenry trained in critical thinking, writing, and research skills beyond the high-school level is citizenry better able to make informed decisions.
Both my nephew and I want him to be happy in his work. But he sees short-term, where I am trained to see long-term. He wants a job, very soon, in the computer work he has come to like in his part-time job. His model is his father, a union worker who will spend his whole adult life doing the same well paid work with good union benefits. But such jobs are fast becoming extinct in the United States, and the jobs that are replacing them, especially information-industry jobs, are nowhere near as secure.
As the sister who didn’t start building up her retirement fund until 15 years after her younger brother (all those years of college and graduate school), I may have limited credibility here. Nevertheless, I believe that a degree would offer my nephew more options in the long run, more opportunities years down the line, in an age in which most people change careers multiple times in their working lives.
The problem is that I cannot be convincing in a larger culture that does not actively promote the value of higher education. Cushioned in a liberal arts college whose mostly middle- and upper-class students enroll (presumably) because they already understand that there’s value in an education that is not job training, I sometimes forget that a college degree can still be a tough sell. That’s why my nephew’s rejection of college came as such a jolt. But it’s reminded me that American anti-intellectualism can have personal consequences. It’s reminded me that I can’t assume the product I’m selling will advertise itself. If I believe that a better educated citizenry would make for a better state or country or world, then I’d better start writing letters and contacting legislators and talking to kids. Guess I should have started with my nephew.
Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts.